CURRENT LOCATION: Calais (at time of posting)
Is he still there? By the time you read this (posting is going to be delayed until Thursday morning due to the lack of a good mobile signal) he may well have been dragged out of Downing Street, kicking and screaming. Last night I had the pleasure of staying with a WarmShowers host in the outskirts of Ostend. He has lead the development of a co-housing project and he now lives on a large plot of land not far from the airport along with 17 other families – around 70 people in total – with separate homes but shared facilities. It’s a real village and it was wonderful to spend a few hours last night in their company talking about the development, the motivation for creating such a place and the practical advantages of doing so. (There are many – I’ll list them in the book!) I spent much of the evening chatting to a retired firefighter called Michel and the subject moved on to politics. I asked him what people in general thought of Boris Johnson in Belgium. “A joke” was his response…
I was up early this morning and left the co-housing project before anyone else was up, leaving a ‘thank-you’ on the blackboard as I departed. Once back in Ostend centre, a coffee, a croissant and a pain au chocolate consumed, off I set along the remainder of the Belgian coast. For the most part, the cycle route – the EuroVelos 4 & 12 – take you along a wide esplanade in front of the high rise apartment blocks that are an almost continuous feature. And when I say ‘wide’, I mean wide! The busy road that presumably once ran alongside the buildings has gone, banished to a back street away from the sea and the result is just wonderful. Think of your favourite British seaside resort. Now remove the busy road that is still there, smarten everything up, introduce gentle segregation of people and bicycles, instal regular street art, maintain everything on a regular basis, keep it clean… It will, alas, never happen.
The final section of the Belgian part of the route was actually quite rural and took me alongside a canal before turning sharp right and north along the border itself. Upon arrival at a main road, the EuroVelo sign said ‘Finish’. I was a little worried that I might have issues refinding the signs on the French side of the border, and I did nearly miss them. There was a ‘France’ sign just along the road from where I was so I pushed the bike towards it to take a picture. Once back on the bike, I just continued cycling down the main road. I might have stayed on it for quite some time had I not noticed a bog-standard sign to a bike path on my right. Nothing special. No EuroVelo symbols or anything. I thought I’d take a look and when I did, stretching into the distance both to my left and right was a distinctive white concrete track of such straightness it could only be a disused railway line. I had redound there EuroVelo route, for a while at least.
It was well signposted all the way to Dunkirk and it was an enjoyable off-road ride that had me at my planned destination by 2:30pm. I had made arrangements to pitch the tent in a garden of a friend of Markus Stitz (who had seen where I was and suggested the idea). Arriving so early in the afternoon however gave me a problem. How to fill four hours in a town that wasn’t shouting ‘pull up a chair, sit down and have a drink’. So I didn’t. (I’m sure Dunkirk has its merits but they weren’t immediately obvious.) I initiated instead my train plan (which I had been expecting to initiate tomorrow morning). Remember that I am going to allow myself a maximum of 10 train rides of a maximum 100km each over the course of the trip. This will reduce the total estimated kilometres from 5,500km to around 4,000-4,500km*. The first of those trains was going to be from Dunkirk to Boulogne. I opened the SNCF app on my phone and it was telling me the next train was leaving at 6am on Thursday morning. Strange. I went inside the station and the first thing I noticed was a woman in distress on her phone, anguishing over her travel arrangements. I looked up at the departures board. ‘Suprimé – Suprimé – Suprimé…’ Almost every train had been cancelled due to a strike… Only one thing I could do: continue cycling.
Alas a triple whammy of issues confronted me; no signs to follow, a strengthening wind from the north-west and my own energy levels. I eventually crawled into pretty Gravelines, found a Spar supermarket, bought a baguette and some Camembert cheese and scoffed the lot whilst sitting on the steps of the town hall. That sorted one problem. The signage problem became redundant when I located a campsite a few kilometres away and switched on Google directions. The wind didn’t play ball however and tortured me the final few kilometres of the day, just as it had done from Dunkirk.
After baguettegate I wasn’t that hungry but I did fancy a beer so after a shower at the reassuringly modestly priced Camping Les Tamaris – just €8 – I cycled down the road to Oye-Plage. You’d think that with a name like that, in July, it would be heaving. Alas not. There was only one bar – callled the ‘J’Anserien’ (ask a French speaker) – that I gave a wide birth, so headed for the Carrefour supermarket and bought a bottle of local cherry beer called Vieux Lille. Now that I’ve written this, that will be the basis for tonight’s entertainment. (Having just sipped a bit, it’s very nice…)
*This means I need to average 80-90km per day over 50 days. That seems reasonable. I’m currently on 79km per day.
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